Bills Defense No Match for Watson’s Magic

It had been almost exactly a year before.  The playoffs following the 2018 season began in Houston on January 5, 2019.  Coming off an 11-5 season that saw them win the AFC South, the Texans welcomed the Indianapolis Colts.

By halftime, the Texans trailed 21-0, on their way to a 21-7 loss.  The Colts had rolled up 85 rushing yards by halftime, on their way to 200 rushing yards.  Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson had managed just 90 passing yards.  He would finish his first playoff game completing 29 of 49 passes for just 235 yards (just 4.8 yards per attempted pass), with only one completion accounting for as many as 20 yards.

With deep threat Will Fuller on the sidelines, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins was getting extra attention from the Colt defense.  He finished that game with just 5 catches for 37 yards.

But that was last year.

Fast forward to January 4, 2020.  Again, the Texans had won their division (they were 10-6 this year), and again they would host the very first playoff game, spreading out the welcome mats for the Buffalo Bills – a team making only its second trip to the playoffs in a couple of decades.  Surely, things would be better this time around.

And they were.  Instead of a 21-0 deficit, Houston went into the locker room trailing just 13-0.  The Bills had rolled up an even 100 rushing yards, while sacking Watson 4 times and limiting him to just 49 passing yards, none longer than 11 yards – the Texans managed just 4 first downs and 81 yards of offense during that first half.

Yes, Fuller was out of the lineup again, and Hopkins – seeing coverage from Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White – was off to another tenuous start.  At the half, DeAndre was still looking for his first reception.

You will forgive the Houston faithful for feeling that they had seen this game before.

But things were about to get worse.

Not quite five minutes into the second half, Hopkins caught his first pass pf the game – and promptly fumbled it, giving Buffalo possession on Houston’s 38.

With 6:46 left in the third quarter, Buffalo sat on Houston’s 12-yard line with a third-and-eight.  They were one intermediate pass play away from sealing the home team’s fate.

A Legend Returns

Toward the end of October, Houston’s playoff future took a sizeable hit, when the Texans’ faithful learned that five-time first-team All Pro and three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt’s season would end early for the third time in the last four years.  The great J.J. had sustained another pectoral tear.

But reports of his demise would turn out to be somewhat exaggerated.  As the season wound down and the Texans were making their playoff push, Watt made it known that he believed he could be back on the field for the start of the playoffs – and true to his word, there he was.  In body, anyway.

To this point of the game, his production had been about what one might have expected from a player who had missed ten weeks.  Thirty-eight and a half minutes into the first Wildcard playoff game, Watt had 0 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 pressures – 0 anything.  Until this moment, with the season flickering in the wind.

That Moment

On this third-down play, Watt shot around Buffalo tackle Chris Clark before he could blink.  Josh Allen had just enough time to take the snap and look up before he was crushed for an 8-yard loss.  The home crowd – starving for something to cheer about – erupted.  Buffalo would still add the field goal that made the score 16-0.  Now, with the third quarter winding down, it would be up to Watson and the offense.

On cue, Deshaun lead the offense 55 yards in 7 plays, bringing them to a third-and-eight at the Buffalo 30.  The seasons of these two teams would pivot sharply on the next two plays.

On third-and-eight, the Bills blitzed from the edges, with Micah Hyde pouring in from the offensive right, and Matt Milano circling around from the left.  Both blitzers would get home.

Running back Duke Johnson tried to pick up Hyde, but Micah ran right through him, pushing Johnson back into Watson’s lap. Milano had it much easier, as no one blocked him.  Left tackle Laremy Tunsil had every opportunity, but was so focused on Jerry Hughes’ inside stunt that he didn’t even see Milano sprinting into the backfield behind him.  Both would end up hitting Watson, but they would be too late as Deshaun got the throw off less than a second before the contact came.

With extra rushers coming, White – in single coverage on Hopkins, in a close split to the right of the formation – took an inside position and backed off about seven yards.  He retreated even more as the play began – responding to DeAndre’s vertical stem – until Hopkins had pushed him past the first-down marker.  At this point, Hopkins cut to the sideline to receive Deshaun’s perfect pass.

With the first down secured, Deshaun faked a handoff to Carlos Hyde into the center of the line, causing an involuntary step to the right on the part of the entire defense.  Watson then pulled the ball in and sprinted around right end.

With Hopkins shielding off White down the sideline, and fullback Cullen Gillaspia throwing a sealing block on Buffalo’s Hyde to set the edge, an alley opened up for Watson as he sped toward the goal line.

He got as close as the six-yard line before Jordan Poyer plowed into him.  Defensive end Trent Murphy jumped on the backs of both at the five.  Micah Hyde finally showed up at the one – but it was, for Buffalo, an exercise in futility.  Watson was not to be denied, as he dove over the goal line, dragging Buffalo Bills with him.  It was the first of two “magical” Deshaun Watson plays that would decide the contest.

Yes, Watson.  The game was definitely afoot.

These were the first of 19 consecutive points that Houston would score, sending them briefly ahead, 19-16.  A late drive by Buffalo led to a tying field goal with five seconds left, and the game was headed to overtime.

A Little Overtime Magic

After each team held the ball for one fruitless possession, Houston began the final drive of the game from their own 17 with 9:02 left in (what would turn out to be) the only overtime session.  Less than five minutes later, Watson would turn in the play that this game will be remembered for.  Actually, though, the Bills lost this game four plays earlier.

Again, it would be a third-down opportunity gone awry.

There is 6:56 left in the period.  The Texans were still backed up on their own 19, facing a third-and-eighteen.  Any kind of stop here – and third-and-18 is about as comfortable a defensive position as one can hold – probably gives the ball back to Buffalo somewhere near midfield.

Playing almost a prevent defense, Buffalo backed six defenders to about the 40-yard line, leaving a 20-yard gap between the four pass rushers and the rest of the defense.  Circling out of the backfield, Duke Johnson found himself all alone as he gathered in Watson’s short pass – after which, of course, he began to streak immediately toward the first-down sticks, running headlong into the converging Buffalo defense.  The two forces met at about the 30-yard line, two yards short of the line to gain.

At that point, Duke picked a spot about equidistance between Tremaine Edmunds and Siran Neal, hitting that small gap with enough force to plow through those two gentlemen for the final two yards needed to sustain the drive.

Let’s be honest.  When the other guy converts a third-and-eighteen against you, you don’t deserve to win.

Four plays later, Houston is facing a second-and-six on Buffalo’s 44.  Into the game for Houston came a sixth offensive lineman (Roderick Johnson) to add to the pass protection.  Buffalo responded by rushing seven.  Coming off the corner un-blocked was Neal, who stormed unabated toward his target.  On the other side, Roderick Johnson’s attention was divided between Milano (again) and Murphy, allowing Milano to skirt rather easily around him.  He, too, was speeding towards Watson.

Neal arrived first, hitting Watson squarely in the back.  It was a twisting blow that forced Deshaun’s back foot off the ground and tilted him severely to the right.  Without any doubt, Watson would have gone down had that been the only blow sustained.  But before Deshaun could fall, Milano arrived and hit him from the same side – his right – that he was about to fall to.  Milano’s hit was exactly what Watson needed to stabilize him.  At the same time – like a human physics experiment – the energy from the two would-be-tacklers transferred through Watson’s body to each other, leaving Deshaun standing upright, while Neal and Milano ended up on the turf.

Now, Deshaun was rolling out of the pocket to the right when he looked up and happened to see running back Taiwan Jones standing all alone along the right sideline.

Taiwan Who?

Taiwan Jones had been the 125th pick in the 2011 draft, going to Oakland where he spent six unremarkable seasons.  He spent the next two seasons (2017-2018) in equal obscurity in Buffalo.

Now 31 years old, he drifted to Houston this year, where he was seen almost exclusively on special teams (the same role he had held in Oakland and Buffalo).  His only previous offensive action this season came in the meaningless Week 17 loss to Tennessee.  Jones had his only 9 carries and caught his only pass of the season in that game.

In the Wildcard game, he somehow managed to see the field for two offensive plays – one of them the biggest play of the season so far for the Texans.

His presence of the field put safety Micah Hyde in a quandary.  Jones lined up wide right, and Hyde lined up opposite him.  Jones was clearly his responsibility.  But, near to the line to that side was Hopkins – who had been getting the better of White for most of the second half.

With extra rushers coming, Hyde was obviously concerned about Hopkins.  Even as the play started and Micah began to retreat, he had his eyes on Hopkins.  DeAndre quickly got outside position on White, and began hurtling up-field.  Seeing this develop, Hyde abandoned Jones and provided tight inside-outside coverage on Hopkins.  Which was all well and good, but . . .

Seven or so yards up field, Jones stopped and settled into the right flat.  Noticing this, Hyde dropped his coverage of Hopkins.  The problem was at this point he was a good ten yards away from the man he was supposed to be covering.  For about three agonizing seconds Micah stood in no man’s land, no longer covering either receiver as Watson was rolling out of trouble in the pocket.  At about the same instant that Watson noticed Jones, Hyde came to get him at top speed.

The rest would be for the highlight reels.

Hyde was still nine yards away when Jones caught the ball and easily eluded Micah.  Before him was a whole lot of green – at least for the next 34 yards.  The next play would be the field goal that ended the contest, 22-19 Houston (gamebook) (summary).

More Watson

The magical plays will retain most of the attention from this game.  I am more impressed with the rest of Watson’s performance than with those two plays.

Deshaun belongs to that breed of improvisational quarterbacks who are most dangerous out of the pocket.  One of Buffalo’s defensive objectives would surely have been to keep Deshaun in the pocket – and they managed this with great success.  The two big plays described were about the only times Deshaun escaped contain.  The rest of the game, Buffalo was very disciplined in keeping Watson in the pocket.

And that is where he beat them from.

Throughout the game, Buffalo presented Deshaun with shifting defensive looks, mixing in healthy doses of blitz (the Bills blitzed on exactly one third of Watson’s dropbacks – 13 of 39).  The challenge was for Deshaun to process the defense and make the correct throw before the pressure got home.

And the pressure was significant.  When he wasn’t missing stunts, tackle Laremy Tunsil was pushed around by Jerry Hughes, who recorded 3 of Buffalo’s 7 sacks.  Deshaun was also forced to scramble 7 times.  The Houston offensive line was far from dominant – a concern as they prepare for Kansas City.

But when Watson did have a chance to read the Buffalo defense, he did so with exceptional success.  Here are a couple of examples.

With 2:48 left in the first quarter, Buffalo gave Watson a pre-snap blitz look, with two linebackers in the A-gaps.  At the snap, the potential blitzers backed into cover-2.  But before Lorenzo Alexander could find his zone, Deshaun deciphered the defensive intent and completed an 11-yard pass to Darren Fells.

Later, in the third quarter, the Bills tried the reverse, showing cover-2, but morphing into a blitz.  Again, Watson analyzed the situation quickly.  Lining up in the secondary to give the cover-2 look, Micah Hyde actually had man coverage on DeAndre Carter – split off to the left.  Realizing that Hyde couldn’t get over to Carter’s flat route in time, Watson was throwing the ball to DeAndre almost as soon as Hyde was moving toward him.

For the game, Watson completed 20 of 25 for 247 yards and a touchdown – a 121.2 passer rating.  He was 8 for 10 for 144 yards when Buffalo blitzed, and 12 for 15 for 103 yards and the touchdown when they didn’t.

It bears pointing out that throughout the season, Buffalo maintained one of the NFL’s elite pass defenses.  Opposing passers managed just a 78.8 rating against them – third best in football – and the 9.8 yards they allowed per completion was the second best figure in the league.  Last Saturday afternoon, Mr. Watson answered a significant challenge.

This is how good Deshaun can be.  The question, now, is can he – and the rest of his Houston teammates – be this good on consecutive weeks.  Sustaining their high level of play has been a season-long struggle for this team – and things won’t get any easier as they now travel to Kansas City.

Kansas City is something of an enigma, itself.  They are a high-powered offense that can run the ball when they remember to.  Defensively, they started off poorly.  Through their first ten games, opposing passers rated at 92.9.  They showed a decisive vulnerability against the run – yielding 148.1 yards a game, 5.1 yards per rush, and 12 rushing touchdowns.  Seven of their first ten opponents scored at least 20 points against them, with four of them scoring at least 30.

During the six-game winning streak that they closed the season with, the Chiefs gave twenty points only once – allowing a total of just 69 points in those games.  The last six quarterbacks they’ve faced have thrown 5 touchdowns against 10 interceptions as part of a 63.5 rating.  Meanwhile running success has dropped to 95 yards per game and just 2 rushing touchdowns given over those games.

Of course, these teams in general (Chargers, Raiders, Patriots, Broncos and Bears) have been given to offensive struggles, so it’s difficult to say how improved the defense really is.

Can Houston beat the Chiefs?  Well, they actually did back in Week Six – and in Kansas City no less.  The Texans ran for 192 yards in that game.  The question is, can they approach that again?

I still have a hard time trusting Houston, so I will be surprised to see them win this game.  But they certainly have the talent to get it done.

Historical Note:

The most famous NFL matchup between Houston and Buffalo came on January 3, 1993 – 17 years ago.  That was the greatest comeback in football history as Buffalo erased a 35-3 third quarter lead on its way to a 41-38 conquest of the Houston franchise (then, of course, they were the Oilers – the franchise that has become the Tennessee Titans).  As all-time comebacks go, the Texans’ 16-point comeback on Saturday pales in comparison to the one authored Frank Reich all those years ago.  But for now, the Texans will count it as partial payback.

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